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Montage sequence

A montage sequence is a technique in film editing in which a series of short shots is edited into a sequence to condense narrative. It is usually used to advance the story as a whole (often to suggest the passage of time), rather than to create symbolic meaning as it does in Soviet montage theory.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, montage sequences often combined numerous short shots with special optical effects (fades, dissolves, split screens, double and triple exposures) and music. They were usually assembled by someone other than the director or the editor of the specific movie.

Development of montage sequence technique

Film historian and critic Arthur Knight connects the development of the Hollywood montage to aspects of Eisenstein's editing:

The word montage came to identify . . . specifically the rapid, shock cutting that Eisenstein employed in his films. Its use survives to this day in the specially created 'montage sequences' inserted into Hollywood films to suggest, in a blur of double exposures, the rise to fame of an opera singer or, in brief model shots, the destruction of an airplane, a city or a planet".

Two common montage sequence devices of the period are a newspaper one and a railroad one. In the newspaper one, there are multiple shots of newspapers being printed (multiple layered shots of papers moving between rollers, papers coming off the end of the press, a pressman looking at a paper) and headlines zooming on to the screen telling whatever needs to be told. There are two montages like this in It Happened One Night. In a typical railroad montage, the shots include engines racing toward the camera, giant engine wheels moving across the screen, and long trains racing past the camera as destination signs zoom into the screen.

Two noted directors of montage sequences

Film critic Ezra Goodman discusses the contributions of Slavko Vorkapić, who worked at MGM and was the best known montage specialist of the 1930s:

He devised vivid montages for numerous pictures, mainly to get a point across economically or to bridge a time lapse. In a matter of moments, with images cascading across the screen, he was able to show Jeanette MacDonald's rise to fame as an opera star in Maytime [1937], the outbreak of the revolution in Viva Villa [1934], the famine and exodus in The Good Earth [1937], and the plague in Romeo and Juliet [1936].

From 1933 to 1942, Donald Siegel, later a noted feature film director, was the head of the montage department at Warner Brothers. He did montage sequences for hundreds of features, including Confessions of a Nazi Spy; Knute Rockne, All American; Blues in the Night; Yankee Doodle Dandy; Casablanca; Action in the North Atlantic; Gentleman Jim; and They Drive By Night.

Siegel told Peter Bogdanovich how his montages differed from the usual ones.

Montages were done then as they're done now, oddly enough—very sloppily. The director casually shoots a few shots that he presumes will be used in the montage and the cutter grabs a few stock shots and walks down with them to the man who's operating the optical printer and tells him to make some sort of mishmash out of it. He does, and that's what's labeled montage.

In contrast, Siegel would read the motion picture's script to find out the story and action, then take the script's one line description of the montage and write his own five page script. The directors and the studio bosses left him alone because no one could figure out what he was doing. Left alone with his own crew, he constantly experimented to find out what he could do. He also tried to make the montage match the director's style, dull for a dull director, exciting for an exciting director.

Of course, it was a most marvelous way to learn about films, because I made endless mistakes just experimenting with no supervision. The result was that a great many of the montages were enormously effective.

Siegel selected the montages he did for Yankee Doodle Dandy [1942], The Adventures of Mark Twain [1944], and Confessions of a Nazi Spy, as especially good ones. "I thought the montages were absolutely extraordinary in 'The Adventures of Mark Twain'—not a particularly good picture, by the way."

Analysis of montage sequences in The Adventures of Mark Twain

As Siegel indicated, The Adventures of Mark Twain is not an especially good movie—it is a long, episodic and largely inaccurate biography of Samuel Clemens, the man known as Mark Twain. (Speigel shares montage credit with James Leicester.) But because the film is long and episodic, it required an unusual number of montage sequences, ranging from the very short to relatively long. In a short one, 15 seconds and five shots take Clemens and a companion across the west to Nevada (three shots of a stagecoach interspersed with two shots of Twain and his friend in the stage). In another short sequence, a large clock face superimposed over faces of laughing people takes 13 seconds to covers one hour in Clemens’ first public talk.

But the longer ones are more interesting. One sequence follows Clemens leaving newspaper work in the west just after the Civil War starts. He has just sent off his first story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County". After he leaves the newspaper office, a stranger enters and asks for Twain, but nobody knows Clemens by that name. Then comes the montage, which in one minute 15 seconds tells the history of the Civil War and of the spread of Twain's story. First come multiple images of Civil War soldiers fighting, and dying, clouds of gun smoke, and headlines—"Federals Crushed at Bull Run", "Union Troops Routed at Fredicksburg"—followed by a short two–shot scene of a newspaper editor telling his staff to run this story about a frog on the front page ("If the country ever needed one flicker of a smile, it needs it now", the editor says.) Then more battle scenes and headlines, now with shots of the jumping frog and the story's own headlines. A second brief scene in a newspaper office—in three shots, the stranger learns "Mark Twain" is Clemens—more battle scenes, then "Peace!" in a headline and Grant marches past cheering crowds. Fade to the now wrecked steamboat Clemens captained before heading west and the movie resumes. Every shot is multiple shots and dissolves except the two in the newspaper offices.

Another extended montage documents Clemens’ failed investment in a typesetting machine. After a sequence where Clemens shows his wife the new typesetter, a fantastic machine with an organ–style keyboard and six long–necked bird–like heads picking type from type trays, the inventor says, "Yes sir, this is certainly the age of progress" and Clemens narrates a sequence of multiple shots showing the country expanding, telegraph lines going up, railroads crossing the country, and Grant as president. Then a single shot of the inventor saying, "Another 10,000 will perfect it." Then, as a narrator says that Clemens needs to write more books to keep his publishing house solvent, comes multiple shots of sheet–fed printing press, Clemens writing, multiple pages, the inventor, housing being built, smoking factory smokestacks, Clemens writing and multiple images of the titles of his new books. It ends with Clemens announcing he's getting out of the typesetting machine business after ten years.

A more leisurely montage sequence occurs earlier in the picture, after Clemens’ son dies and his wife encourages him to write the stories of his youth on the Mississippi that he had told his son. It begins with Clemens writing the words "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" on a piece of paper and ends two minutes and 34 seconds later with his wife reading the manuscript. This is a montage with very few multiple images—basically a few multiple images of Tom, Huck and Jim on the river (shots from early in the film) as Clemens starts to write. Instead, there are slow fades between common elements in different settings—Clemens writing in a chair outside in a garden, pan down to a mug with eight cigars in it as one is removed, slow dissolve to the same mug with one cigar in it, pull back to show Clemens still writing. Brief multiple image of manuscript Chapter XVII and the boys on a raft, dissolve to Clemens writing in bed, he reaches for a cup of coffee and camera pans to the coffee pot, slow dissolve to the same coffee pot on his desk, pan to Clemens writing at desk. His head falls forward onto his writing as he falls asleep. Suddenly tiny Tom, Huck, and Jim walk on the pages and read what's written on the page. Clemens awakens as they run away. He writes "Finis" and the montage ends with his wife reading the manuscript.

Analysis of two typical montage sequences

The two montage sequences in Holiday Inn [1942] show the two basic montage styles. The focus of the movie is an inn that presents elaborate nightclub shows only on the holidays. The film was in production when America entered World War II.

The first montage occurs during the Independence Day show, as Bing Crosby sings "Song of Freedom". The 50 second montage combines several single screen sequences of workers in an aircraft factory and various military units in motion (troops marching, planes flying, tanks driving) with multiple split screens, with up to six images in one shot. The next to the last shot shows a center screen head shot of General Douglas MacArthur in a large star with military images in the four corners.

The second montage occurs near the end of the film, showing the passage of time. Unlike the clarity of the "Song of Freedom" montage, this one layers multiple images in an indistinct and dream-like fashion. In the film, the character played by Fred Astaire has taken Crosby's partner, Marjorie Reynolds, to star in a motion picture based on the idea of the inn. The 60 second montage covers the time from Independence Day to Thanksgiving. It opens with a split screen showing three shots of Hollywood buildings and a zoom title, Hollywood. Then comes a zoom into a camera lens where Astaire and Reynolds are seen dancing to a medley of tunes already introduced in the film. The rest of the sequence continues to show them dancing, with multiple images of motion picture cameras, cameramen, a director, musical instruments, single musical notes, sheet music and dancers' legs circle around them. Several times six images of themselves also circle the dancers. Only the opening shot uses a clearly defined split screen and only the second shot is a single shot.

Both of these styles of montage have fallen out of favor in the last 50 years. Today's montages avoid the use of multiple images in one shot, either through splits screens as in the first example or layering multiple images as in the second. Most recent examples use a simpler sequence of individual short, rapidly paced shots combined with a specially created background song to enhance the mood or reinforce the message being conveyed.

Contemporary montage sequences listed

Many films are well known for their montage scenes. Examples include:

In nearly all of these examples, the montages are used to compress narrative time and show the main character learning or improving skills that will help achieve the ultimate goal.

The sports training montage

The sports training montage is a standard explanatory montage. It originated in American cinema but has since spread to modern martial arts films from East Asia. Originally depicting a character engaging in physical or sports training, the form has been extended to other activities or themes.

Conventions and clichés

The standard elements of a sports training montage include a build-up where the potential sports hero confronts their failure to train adequately. The solution is a serious, individual training regimen. The individual is shown engaging in physical training through a series of short, cut sequences. An inspirational song (usually fast-paced rock music) typically provides the only sound. At the end of the montage several weeks have elapsed in the course of just a few minutes and the hero is now prepared for the big competition. One of the most well-known examples is the training sequence in the 1976 movie Rocky, which culminates in Rocky's run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The simplicity of the technique and its over-use in American film vocabulary has led to its status as a film cliché. A notable parody of the sports training montage appears in the South Park episode, "Asspen", noted above. When Stan Marsh must become an expert skier quickly, he begins training in a montage where the inspirational song explicitly spells out the techniques and requirements of a successful sports training montage sequence as they occur on screen. The same song is used in Team America: World Police in a similar sequence.

In "Once More, with Feeling", Buffy Summers does an extended workout while Rupert Giles sings one song; this distortion of time is one of numerous musical conventions made literal by a spell affecting Sunnydale. Prior to this sequence, Buffy Summers voices her concern that "this whole session is going to turn into some training montage from an 80s movie" to which Rupert Giles replies "Well, if we hear any inspirational power chords we'll just lie down until they go away."

Use in Japanese and Hong Kong cinema

In films from Japan and Hong Kong, particular emphasis is placed on the suffering of the trainee, often with the breakthrough in training being a change in perspective rather than physical capability. More importance is often placed on the master passing down knowledge to their student, rather than the self-discovery of American film.

A classic use of the sports training montage in Hong Kong cinema is The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shao Lin san shi liu fang). In The 36th Chamber the student displays an arrogance and unwillingness to learn. The student develops through a process of suffering, towards self-mastery in learning, finally achieving triumph in realising that he controls his ability to learn. This training sequence is much closer to Zen Buddhist ideas regarding teaching practice, or Sufi learning concepts, than the individualistic American model used above.


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